Late Rains

May 6, 2010

I live in Northern California, where our sunny summers are the envy of gardeners and farmers everywhere. We can grow things here that, in ways,  make our country’s eastern and northern brethren sigh, and reach for chemical solutions.

Decades ago, one of my sister purchased a home on ten rural acres in Northern Michigan. Of that, several acres were planted in peach trees. She was excited to include canning peaches, as part of her repertoire.

Already an urban farmer myself, I was excited for her—wow, an orchard! (Though, I’ll confess that I’m not much of a peach fan, even less so if they’re cooked.) I had my own sorry, little, peach tree next to my kitchen window— badly planted in the worst light in the yard, and sandwiched between two houses in poor clay soil. It was all I could do to keep the poor thing alive.

After my sister and her husband closed escrow, they trouped down to the local agricultural extension office to learn all about peaches. The the good news was—the extension agent was already familiar with their orchard. The bad news—the same; it had a history. It was planted on a north facing slope—in his dealings with the former owners, the agent had recommended against its planting—poor light, and in that climate, the peaches needed a warm, southern exposure to do well. Beyond that, my sister’s new farmette had poor soils—too much sand. Had there been any rich soil mixed with it that it wouldn’t have been a problem, but with just sand, the rains drained right through with no organic soils components to hold the water. As a result, the trees were spindly, required near-constant irrigation and frequently suffered from diseases.

The agent sent them off with a long list of all the sprays and fertilizers needed to compensate for their poor location. Chagrined, but by no means dissuaded, they were still eager to grow their own organic peaches. The first season was not stellar, but the proud owners harvested enough to can and send quarts of peaches to all the relatives. My husband loved them. Cooked peaches, eh? Still, it’s exciting to produce your own food and we discussed it frequently—me with my spindly single tree and her with a spindly orchard. They resisted the chemical approach.

Well, their trees got worse every year. With peaches, the biggest and most obvious problem is peach-curl. They had it—and once you have it, there’s not much you can do that year. The treatment is a noxious, dormant spray that is applied in the winter. On the organic side, it’s important to clean up the leaf litter, the disease spreads from the infected leaves to the soil, and then re-infects the following year when warm conditions and rains release the blight into the air—to once again attack the trees. If you catch it early enough, you can strip all the affected leaves off the tree and hope that the rain holds off when the new leaves appear. Then there are peach-borers that leave your trees peppered with holes and oozing sap like a drive-by victim. I was learning on my own what a pain it is to nurse a plant along in an environment where it didn’t belong in the first place.

The following year, after a beautiful blossoming season, she called to announce that the new baby leaves were curling—again! She was near tears and announced that they were going to breakdown and spray that winter. I was sympathetic. I was in my own battle with borers. The nurseryman warned me that the real problem was that my tree didn’t belong where it was, and so there would always be problems. She and I were in the same peach boat.

With little else to offer, I suggested to my sister that she could try stripping all the leaves.

“Two acres? There’s a couple of hundred trees out there!” She was not comforted. They didn’t spray—and the following year, she started pulling out the peach trees and got sheep instead. I finally cut down my peach tree and landscaped the narrow set back with some appropriate plants.

So, three years ago my brother’s town was hit by a tornado, late in June. The fierce winds stripped every leaf from the trees . It looked like winter! And yet, those trees were able to re-leaf and still create a lush, summer canopy on which the Midwest relies for relief from its hot muggy summers. I was reminded of that sorry peach orchard all those decades ago.

As a tenant here, I now find myself the guardian of another spindly-ass peach tree. To maximize the tree’s visual impact, it was planted on a little knoll behind the house, in a rock garden, with a “water feature” (an old, buried claw-foot tub.)  It’s a treacherous way to plant a tree that’s going to need a lot of tending, pruning and regular maintenance.  (Never put a water feature under a peach tree!) Over the years I’ve been fighting to bring this tree back to health—pruning and trying to rake-up the leaves (in between the rocks and the tub and the ground-cover.) Some years are better than others. This winter I finally got it pruned back to a healthy shape and proportion. With this year’s dry weather, cold nights and strange warm days, it bloomed early. I worried about it freezing and whether there’d be any bees around to pollinate. Still it did very well and the leaves looked pretty good—until the late rains came.

I can’t complain about any rain. We got so little this winter that it’s just bad form to whine about “bad weather.” Whenever it rained, we’d all congratulate each other. Every drop was needed and welcome, except that in the back of my mind, I was worried about my susceptible little ward, the peach tree. And I was right to be worried. Soon, those shiny, spring-green, baby leaves began to pucker. They picked up that weird rosy color and ballooned into thick, twisted, cabbagey-looking shapes. The tree looked terrible. Nothing about peach curl looks healthy. Those leaves cannot possibly photosynthesize the food needed to support the tree. It’s heartbreaking. What could I do? There was no point in attempting anything until the rains stopped—any new leaves would surely succumb all over again in the wet. So finally, it’s clearly the end of the rainy season. And about time, too. That little bit of late rain wasn’t enough to help our soils but it sure did a number on that little peach tree. Too bad, too, since this year it’s laden with little fruit.

So, today, I walked my peach talk. I hand-stripped all the damaged leaves from the tree and hauled them away. Rick helped. I only fell into that damn, claw-foot tub once. The tree looks very spindly, but all the deformed leaves are gone, leaving only the few fresh spring green baby leaves that the tree was already sprouting to compensate for the blight. So, we shall see, what we shall see. I’ll report back in a month or so to say whether it’s worked.